Summit Education Initiative released its annual report on educational attainment last week, and while slight gains have been made, the disparity between white students and racial minorities in the county is still significant with no signs of letting up.

And, despite the organization's targeted efforts to increase kindergarten readiness, that number has been on the decline the past two years — a trend they attribute to the opioid epidemic.

These revelations, and the initiatives in place to target both, were revealed at the organization’s seventh annual event Thursday at Greystone Hall to flesh out the data to educators.

“Our families across the county have been struggling with drug-related crises at unprecedented rates, and therefore, we face even greater systemic challenges to increasing kindergarten readiness now and in our coming years,” said Laura DiCola, the early childhood strategy leader for Summit Education Initiative (SEI), during the event. “We will need every intervention, resource and partnership in order to combat the downstream challenges created by the opioid epidemic.”

Each year, Summit Education Initiative releases data on county attainment in six key milestones of a child’s education called “leading indicators of success” that are proven to predict success later in life. Those indicators are kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading proficiency, eighth-grade math proficiency, ninth-grade academic success, college readiness rates and college enrollment/persistence. The organization has target points in each with the overall goal of helping kids earn 48,000 new college degrees or career credentials by 2025.

 

Disparities in the data

SEI began breaking data out by race to the public for the 2015-16 school year to highlight the disparities between minority students and their white counterparts, many of which are as high as 40 percentage points.

Since then, minor gains have been made in some areas to close those gaps. Since last year, for example, black students improved 8 percent, Hispanic students improved 19 percent and Asian students skyrocketed 24 percent, all in eighth-grade math. Ninth-grade success also saw modest gains for minorities since last year, with black and multiracial students each improving 3 percent and Asian students improving 8 percent.

College enrollment and persistence has the smallest gaps among minorities. But as a whole, large gaps remain — especially between black and white students — across the board.

“It’s alarming,” said Derran Wimer, the executive director of SEI. “It’s absolutely something we have to pay attention to and we have to act on.”

The achievement gap among minorities is an ongoing challenge within the education system.

Wimer said SEI has begun working on small initiatives to target the issue, like teacher training on implicit bias. But overall, the organization’s main initiative in addressing the disparities is sparking conversation to encourage community involvement in tackling the nuanced issues at hand.

“It’s not that we’re trying to fix the kids.… It’s the system in the larger sense that needs to be adjusted,” Wimer said. “The kids are a product of this system, or multiple systems interacting, that aren’t effective in helping all kids be successful.”

 

Opioids hit kids

While the achievement gap is an ongoing battle, SEI’s data this year revealed the beginnings of a newer battle entering the education sphere: the opioid epidemic.

Despite increased, concerted efforts on kindergarten readiness in the county, the rate of children entering their first year of formal school ready to learn plummeted 5 percent in just one year.

Now at 60 percent countywide, kindergarten readiness is measured using the language and literacy portion of Ohio’s Kindergarten Readiness Assessment. The indicator is highly correlated with future reading achievement in third grade and academic success in later years.

Children across racial groups felt the fall, especially white and Hispanic students.

Along with Summit County Public Health, SEI correlates the decline to the opioid epidemic. DiCola said children entering kindergarten in 2017-18 were born around 2012 — the same year heroin overdoses rose 58 percent.

That year was simply the start of the epidemic, as overdoses continued to rise through 2015. Overdoses on fentanyl also spiked in 2014, presenting a concoction of challenges plaguing the county’s youngest children.

“Our partners at Summit County Public Health tell us students enrolling in kindergarten next year will present even greater needs,” DiCola said. “We’re kind of at the beginning cusps of some of the great stresses that we’re seeing around the county.”

 

Searching for solutions

SEI leaders emphasized that solutions to both major issues need to be addressed by the entire community and the systems within it, including health care services, social services, job and family services and more.

It’s something area organizations are starting to be more involved with, Wimer said. Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, for example — an organization not traditionally thought to have a role in the educational system — has established its Early Childhood Initiative to host events, hold child screenings, make connections to community resources and initiate home visits to provide parents with early learning knowledge and resources.

At the same time, SEI has attempted to facilitate those connections at the earliest levels of education through Readiness Coalitions.

Now in 14 of 16 school districts across the county, Readiness Coalitions are groups of educators who gather to brainstorm not only how to connect preschool and kindergarten resources, but also how to connect outside community resources to the early learning realm to increase kindergarten readiness.

An ongoing goal for most of the coalitions has been boosting mental health supports and social-emotional learning at the lowest levels — an attainment that would address the achievement gap as well as the opioid epidemic.

The result of the coalitions is already beginning to take effect at the classroom level. At Wilcox Primary School in Twinsburg, the coalitions have resulted in more mental health supports and a new curriculum that helps elementary students identify and deal with how they’re feeling.

The new initiatives have yielded tangible results, including fewer office referrals. In the first two months of last school year, there were approximately 15 office referrals per month, said Scott Astey, the assistant principal at Wilcox.

Once students began learning the curriculum, though, office referrals averaged five a month, leading to more children spending less time in trouble and more time learning.

“Those are students who are available to learn now and have the skills necessary to really be in the classroom,” Astey said.

 

Theresa Cottom-Bennett can be reached at 330-996-3216. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.